Halting the Extinction of America’s Plants and Animals: 3 Steps the New Democratic President Should Take
Across America and the globe, the climate crisis is driving animals and plants, from the iconic to the obscure, toward extinction at a harrowing pace. The vitality and health of our lands will be harmed by the loss of the polar bears, the Florida Keys mole skink, elkhorn and staghorn coral, and the stunning Texas Poppy-mallow. In America alone, one in five animal and plant species are on the path to extinction, with worse yet to come. Over one-third of species will be on the track to extinction by 2050.
The Trump administration accelerated the devastation by gutting environmental safeguards and slashing the safety net for our most imperiled species. The New York Times recently detailed nearly 100 protections that the White House has rolled back, including the cross-state air pollution rule, energy efficiency standards, the Clean Power Plan, vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, and methane pollution standards for oil and gas sources. The cumulative impact is hastening global warming and climate-related causes of extinctions ranging from rising sea levels to the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and other extreme weather, to changes in habitable areas for many species.
The pace of these rollbacks has vastly increased in 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic providing both political diversion and cover, as well as highlighting the devastating impact of habitat loss. President Trump has moved at a record rate to weaken protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act and weaken several other protections for animals from sea turtles to birds.
Our new Democratic administration should take three concrete, immediate steps to protect the plants and animals that are key parts of our national heritage:
1. Declare a climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act, then rapidly phase out fossil fuel extraction on federal land.
Invoking emergency powers will allow the president to utilize special powers under nearly 150 existing federal laws. Almost one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. result from extraction on federal lands. Ending those emissions would make a big difference, quickly — and would end drilling threats to national treasures such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
2. Restore the Endangered Species Act.
The Endangered Species Act is wildly popular and wildly successful. The Trump-era administration regulations that weaken it must be reversed. Endangered species decisions must be science-based, not based on political or economic factors. The president should move to protect U.S. land areas for plants and wildlife, and designate wildlife corridors, including areas for coastal retreat and wildlife crossings.
3. Re-strengthen America’s commitment to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Under a 2018 directive from Trump’s Interior Department, polluters — mostly oil companies — that kill and injure migratory birds are no longer held responsible so long as the harm is “incidental,” even if the injurious activity was illegal. Two-thirds of America’s birds were already at risk of extinction. This giant loophole must be closed.
America’s biodiversity and natural spaces are a big part of what makes our country so special, but much of that is at risk because of climate change. Our new Democratic administration will need to act quickly to reverse the damage done by the Trump administration. By starting with these three steps, we can quickly begin to make progress toward ensuring that our country’s natural heritage thrives and rich biodiversity and abundant wild places are around for our children and future generations.
Jaclyn Lopez is the Florida Political Director at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. She holds a master of laws degree in environmental and land-use law from the University of Florida, a J.D. from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Arizona. Jaclyn works on protecting endangered species and human communities in the Southeast and Caribbean, and has presented and written on numerous environmental issues and taught courses on environmental law.